Electricity Exchange: keeping the grid in balance

Irish Times Innovation awards: Finalist in the sustainability category explains how its new device prevents power outages or even blackouts

Duncan O’Toole and Dr Paddy Finn, co-founders of Electricity Exchange.

Duncan O’Toole and Dr Paddy Finn, co-founders of Electricity Exchange.

 

The electricity grid is a very finely balanced and surprisingly delicate piece of infrastructure. It is designed to operate at a frequency of 50hz and any significant deviation from that can cause power outages and, in the most severe cases, a complete shutdown.

It has also been designed to carry power from traditional fossil fuel and hydroelectric plants. Power from renewable sources such as wind and solar has significantly different characteristics and doesn’t mix well with the traditional form. This makes it difficult for grid operators to keep systems in balance and the more renewables in use, the harder it gets.

For that reason, organisations such as Eirgrid have established schemes to deliver increased security to the grid. In Eirgrid’s case, the DS3 Systems Services Payments scheme rewards partners for either providing initial power to the network or reducing demand when required by the network.

Irish firm, Electricity Exchange, has developed IoTAS, a device which combines hardware and software to detect and respond to frequency deviations on the national grid in less than 150 milliseconds.

“We address the problem from the demand side,” explains Electricity Exchange managing director Dr Paddy Finn. “IoTAS can detect a frequency drop so quickly that it can get a cement factory to switch off in 100th the time it takes to blink your eye. The Tesla battery facility in Australia is doing much the same thing except that it is storing electricity in reserve to put back into the system when the frequency drops.

“We provide 14mw of fast frequency response to Eirgrid,” he adds. “That’s enough power for 16,000 homes. If you did that with a battery system, it would cost about €3.5 million. With IoTAS the capital cost is just €30,000. Because we provide fast services to Eirgrid, they know they are safe to run the system with higher levels of renewables. It’s like buying a house without an alarm, you won’t put valuables into it until one is installed.”

Electricity Exchange works with partner organisations who are significant users of electricity. They agree to switch off demand for short periods when required and receive an annual fee from Eirgrid for doing so. “A cement factory might shut down for between 90 seconds and five minutes,” Finn points out. “They have agreed timeframes with Eirgrid and they get paid for the amount of energy demand they are willing to shut off. That could be worth a few hundred thousand euro a year to the cement factory.”

The initial idea for IoTAS dates back to 2014 when the company set up a virtual power station which is effectively the reverse process. Instead of delivering demand drops, the virtual station delivers additional power to the grid from a range of partner organisations with their own generating plants.

“We have a 24-hour operations centre here and when extra power is needed to balance the network, instead of turning on gas in existing plants to generate it, we use existing customers on grid to provide the response needed”, says Finn. “Five years ago, we identified the need Eirgrid would have for a fast frequency response as a result of the growth in renewables on the network. We developed our own hardware and software solution because we couldn’t find technology out there that worked fast enough at the right price point.”

Having succeeded in Ireland, the company is now expanding internationally. “Our aim is to be in three countries within the next 18 months and in 12 in five years. We will shortly meet with a number of partners in the Middle East and Australia to kick off that expansion.”

The company is also developing a household version of the technology. “We are working on a new version of IoTAS that will fit on the head of a pin and can be incorporated in electric car chargers,” says Finn. “It will also be able to monitor the amount of solar power being produced at any one time to help Eirgrid better control the grid. There is a certain threshold to the amount of domestic solar that can be taken on the grid and IoTAS will help Eirgrid ensure it remains within that.”

The company has 35 employees with 12 in R&D. “We are profitable and growing,” Finn concludes. “We started out with a virtual generating station and found we were good at technology development. We have now almost morphed into a technology company that provides services to the power industry.”

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